The 1951 Asian Games in New Delhi was meant to announce to the world the emergence of a newly independent India. Much like Nelson Mandela at the 1995 Rugby World Cup, then Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, understood what a symbolic sporting victory could do for a nation trying to pick up the pieces.
The Indian football team, which had won many admirers at the 1948 London Olympics, was the star attraction. They beat Indonesia and Afghanistan convincingly to set up the final with Iran. With the score deadlocked at 0-0, Nehru reportedly walked into the Indian dressing room at half-time to have a chat, especially with star centre forward, Sheoo Mewalal. It seemed to have the desired effect. Mewalal scored the lone goal in the second half and a packed National Stadium witnessed a historic victory. He also emerged the top scorer at the tournament, scoring in all three games.
Sheoo Mewalal was born in Bihar in 1926 and not unlike a lot of footballers from this region, found his way to Calcutta. He was only seven when he moved – his father having found a job at Fort William, the centre for the British army. He learnt the basics of the game watching these soldiers and soon had a first coach in Sergeant Barnett, who was impressed by his talent.
Barnett found him a place in the Morning Star club and his career took off from there. He graduated to the second division of the Calcutta Football League and word of his prowess in front of goal spread. J.C. Guha of East Bengal approached him and was politely turned down because Mewalal’s dream was to play for the club he supported as a child, Mohun Bagan. In a sign of the times, Guha informed Mohun Bagan’s coach, B.D. Chatterjee about this development and the dream move transpired.
Mewalal stayed at Mohun Bagan for only one season. In 1947, he moved to Eastern Bengal Railways and stayed there for most of his career. Sheoo was the top-scorer in the Calcutta Football League on four occasions and scored 39 goals for Bengal in the Santosh Trophy.
He found a place in India’s first post-independence squad and was top scorer in the team’s tour of Europe in the late 40s, including two goals against Ajax Amsterdam. In the unfortunate 1-2 defeat against France at the 1948 Olympics, he assisted Sarangapani Raman’s goal and was instrumental in winning India two penalties. Neither opportunity was taken. He also represented India in the 1952 Helsinki Olympics.
Mewalal was a certified goal-machine. He ended his career due to injury in 1958 with a reported 1032 goals and 32 hat-tricks in official and exhibition matches. Sheoo was renowned for his bicycle kicks, the rabona kick and for striking a moving ball – an acquired skill in that era.
Sheoo was not one to hobnob with the football federation and as a result he spent his post-retirement in relative obscurity. His contribution to Indian football was ignored and he wasn’t even considered for the Arjuna award. Although he struggled to make a living, his love for the game endured and he continued to promote football in Hastings, Kolkata – the place where he found his calling as a kid.
Fifty years later, he passed away in a Kolkata hospital after having initially been refused admission. India’s first bonafide star striker was treated with general apathy by officials throughout his career and in retirement. He died the same way, forgotten and discarded by a history he helped write.
This article was originally published on Flying Goalie in June of 2018. A few additions/edits have been made to the post.